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Ed's Brexit round-up - progress made! And fish

23rd Mar 2018 / By Ed Barker

With almost exactly a year until official leave date for Brexit, we have had a week where actual tangible progress has been made..

Transitional period 

EdBarkerNPAOn Monday, we had the big news that David Davis and Michel Barnier agreed to a withdrawal ‘transitional period’, from March 29, 2019 to December 2020. The transition deal will ensure many current arrangements between the UK and EU remain in place immediately after we leave the EU, though, as expected, UK influence over such arrangements and rules will be limited.

A big ‘win’ for the UK was that. But the UK will also be able to negotiate and sign trade deals during the transition period, though given the scale of agreeing full trade deals, the EU are probably aware this isn’t going to be done anytime soon – certainly not to their disadvantage.

So it’s a good thing right?

Well, yes in that we have more breathing space and don’t have an unthinkable cliff edge next year. However, it does mean we have a lot to do in the 21 months. In theory, if it isn’t sorted by the end of 2020 then we have another cliff edge!

At the same time, Article 50 still has to be agreed in full by all member states before this can be assured and the position of the Irish border and trade in goods has still not been clarified. Yes, I know - Ireland (£1 in the jar). But going into the European Council meeting this month, there is plenty to go on.

Fish

Fish. One thing many will have picked out this week was that, as part of the agreement, the UK has agreed to EU demands that during this 21 month period, it will stay within the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Now fish and politics have often gone together nearly as well as agriculture and politics; indeed it was one of the key sticking points for fisheries prior to the UK joining the EEC in 1970s, given the pooling of sovereignty that it brought.

It is possibly of little coincidence that the main fishing and ex-fishing towns of the UK strongly voted in favour of Brexit; not unlike agriculture, many saw it as an opportunity to come out of the CFP, which means not having full control of catches in your coastal waters, not setting total allowable catch limits and still permitting non-UK fishing firms to operate in UK waters (and of course vice-versa). The additional snag with all of this is that the UK will not be able to set rules as well.

So the questions I have had this week are – Has the fishing industry been ‘sold down the river’? And should we be worried that UK agriculture will be treated similarly? Me being me, I have set out studying the CFP and UK fishing policy to find out.

The answer is, it isn’t quite as simple as it has been made out by some politicians! Many promised before the Brexit vote that we could retain full control of our coastal waters, only permit UK fishing firms to operate in UK waters and set our own quotas. The having your own (fish)cake and eat it option. However, much like agriculture, in or out of the EU you will still struggle to get everything your own way.

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Outside of the CFP, the UK is a signatory to the UN on the convention on the laws of the sea, which sets out common rules on fishing stocks, EU fisheries rules is a way of agreeing this at regional level
  • Why the convention? Well fish (I am advised) are annoying critters that have little respect for international borders or sea boundaries and swim around seas as they please. Therefore the incentive is to fish as much as you can, given the precariousness of fish locations. Having a global agreement helps provide oversight to stop this from happening – i.e. depleting a global resource.
  • International and even EU law is there to deal with a technical problem offered by roving fish. We will leave the EU, but the fish wont, passing freely across borders. So we need to have some kind of supra-state agreement, failure to do so would completely isolate us out of the UN convention.
  • On top of this, 80% of UK fish catches are exported, 66% of that to the EU. The majority of the fish we do want to consume is imported, 32% of which comes from the EU. Therefore tariff free access to the EU is vital…sounds familiar dosent it?
  • As a result of this, the EU holds quite a strong hand – it knows that by putting up trade barriers (tariff or non-tariff) it could cause considerable harm to the UK fishing industry, not least to the UK fishing firms who are operating in other parts of the EU’s seas thanks to (ahem) the CFP.

So what are we left with? And how does it relate to agriculture? In fish we have a commodity that is shared across seas – almost a common resource if you will, unlike agriculture which is territorially defined. In staying within the CFP we have agreed to maintain the status quo for 21 months, but we certainly will be leaving it, much like the CAP and others, after 2020.

What will follow will be subject to negotiations between two parties; playing trade hardball, as some pro-Brexiteers have suggested, could leave us unable to export our own fish and unable to import the fish we actually want.

Yet the interdependence from both sides on trade should override this, and much like in agriculture, allow a solution that allows both parties to trade feely but also have definitions on what is caught where and when.

The UK will have an independent voice and will be able to define a policy towards its own waters, much like we are doing with our own land and environment under the new Defra Command Paper. This is good.

But as my Dad always told me, be very careful of people who try and sell you something too good to be true. That is something that is common to both farming and our fish.

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